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Strathspey

The In Pinn – in the news <em>Picture: Perkin Warbeck</em>

The In Pinn – in the news Picture: Perkin Warbeck

Turning away – for a moment at least – from the politics and palaver of the Fisherfield hill-survey saga, a few other recent outdoors stories merit mention.

First up has to be the heartwarming tale of the charity donation box accidentally left on Ben Lomond by a team of path-repairers. This, rather than being snaffled or emptied as tends to be assumed to be the modern way, turned up not just intact but containing more money than when it was lost.

The incident was reported in the aftermath of the English riots, and formed a nice contrast to those, a kind of anti-looting story. Rather than taking stuff, people made donations (admittedly of cash, rather than of plasma TVs, iPhones and horrible designer sportswear) without any prompting.

It would be wrong to overanalyse this, however, and to portray it as Scottish generosity versus English graspingness – plenty of non-Scots climb Ben Lomond, after all, and there’s a fair chance that a charity box left inadvertently on, say, Skiddaw in England or Tryfan in Wales would likewise receive a top-up.

Neither is it metropolitan materialism versus gentler rural ways, given that the majority of people who climb Ben Lomond surely come from urban areas. It is, though, a nice story, from which everyone emerges in a good light.

Talking of boxes containing money, the latest pay-to-park story is being subjected to scrutiny and discussion. The latter part of this month sees the start of a two-year trial period in which visitors will be asked to make a voluntary £2 donation when parking at the humongous Coire Cas car park – alongside the funicular railway base station and at the branching-off point for a variety of hill paths, eg across towards the Northern Corries.

Whether the charge would then, come 2013, be made compulsory remains to be seen – but that has been the pattern elsewhere following voluntary trial periods. The donation scheme is being introduced by CairnGorm Mountain Ltd (CML), having been approved on 22 July by the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

It wouldn’t, strictly speaking, be something entirely new at Coire Cas. As Colin Kirkwood, chief executive of CML, has pointed out, until the early 1980s there was “a manned booth which charged on exit”. Kirkwood argues for the new charges on the basis of “looking to ask visitors to put something towards a reinvestment in footpaths, environmental projects, car parks and facilities”.

Certainly the path network hereabouts has been upgraded massively, to a high standard, and such things do not come cheap. On the other hand, there are those who see the whole going-like-a-fair aspect of Coire Cas as already being an unwelcome and very visible commercial intrusion into the hills.

Add to that the old tensions between skiers (who pay for all sorts of stuff – day passes etc) and walkers and climbers (easy to portray as freeloaders given that they simply park the car and march off self-reliantly on foot). Add also the old argument that £2 is next to nothing on top of fuel costs – which tends to assume everyone is a holidaymaker coming from miles away, rather than a Strathspey local who might like to go to Coire Cas every few days and for whom a regular £2 hit would feature much higher in the mix.

And add, too, the curious lopsidedness whereby pay-to-park for hill activities has become established in certain places on the east side of the Highlands – Glen Muick, Linn of Dee, etc – but not so much in the west (Loch Long excepted). What, if anything, does that say about different-area mentalities?

For now, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland – a key voice in the Coire Cas debate as it has an interest in walking, climbing and skiing – seems happy enough about the voluntary charge but cautious about what might happen thereafter.

See also the discussion at Winterhighland. One to watch.

Turning briefly to less serious matters, readers of the Sun and the Daily Mail last week were treated to – and perhaps puzzled by – a photo-story in which Graeme Ettle climbed the Inaccessible Pinnacle, photographed by Dave Cuthbertson.

“He’s a Pinn-up”, was Wapping’s take on it, while Paul Dacre’s staff opted for the more formal “Conquering the In Pin: Intrepid free climber reaches the summit of Britain’s most Inaccessible Pinnacle without a rope”.

Nice pictures, for sure, and “daredevil” Ettle does appear to have made a free ascent of the steep end of the second-highest lump of rock in the Hebrides (although the Mail mentions “a flimsy rope”). But is not “Climber climbs In Pinn” roughly along the same lines, in newsworthiness terms, as “Walker completes West Highland Way”, or “Motorist drives along M25”?

Quiet news day, perhaps.

Finally, mention should be made of two recent deaths. Alan Blackshaw was one of the great and the good of the mountaineering world, heavily involved in matters domestic and Alpine, both in terms of actual on-hill activity and in the committee rooms. He was, for instance, president of the British Mountaineering Council 1973–76, of the Ski Club of Great Britain 1997–2003, and of the Alpine Club 2001–04. He undertook numerous other roles over the years, including being heavily involved in the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), again with a spell (2004–05) in the presidency.

He was the author of Mountaineering: From Hillwalking to Alpine Climbing, published in 1966 and often referred to simply as “Blackshaw” in the same way that Eric Langmuir’s Mountaincraft and Leadership is just “Langmuir”.

Blackshaw’s death on 4 August, aged 78, prompted numerous obituaries and tributes: see the Daily Telegraph, the Herald, the Scotsman, the UIAA, the Alpine Club, the BMC and the MCofS. Also by Dave Morris at the Ramblers, fellow Newtonmore hill man Cameron McNeish, and Chris Townsend.

Also widely reported has been the death of Ian Redmond, aged 30, who was attacked by a shark on 16 August while snorkelling off the Seychelles. He and his wife Gemma were on their honeymoon.

Amid all the sadness and horror of the incident, and the discussion about the dangers of sharks, there has been little mention of Redmond – from Lancashire – having been a climber. Condolences and tributes can be found in a thread on UKBouldering.com, including this, from a friend named Adam Jeewooth: “To me Ian is a bouldering, sport climbing and a genuine friend. We both have shared many experiences in the time I knew him from meeting at BoulderUK, getting snowed off in Northumberland, drinking wine in Ceuse in a shit rental car and bouldering in font [Fontainebleau]. He was totally in love with Gemma (his wife) and was a family man.”

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Looking down on the head of Loch Avon <em>Picture: Callum Black</em>

Looking down on the head of Loch Avon Picture: Callum Black

Sunday
Late morning was as good a time as any to brave the 100-mile drive up the A9, and by 2pm I was starting up the strange hill that is Creag Meagaidh. It was tackled from Moy, to the south, rather than the trade route from Aberarder via the Window, which I’d done a couple of times previously.

The Moy approach was a different game entirely, both in terms of people-quietness and lower-ground squelchy roughness (the two might well be connected).

Ralph Storer, in his Ultimate Guide to the Munros series, writes that “an ATV track proves useful for a while” – but in my case it proved useful for about 30 seconds before vanishing in the summer-growth jungle.

The first 45 minutes, until across the Moy Burn and starting up the much steeper and easier southwestern slope of the outlier An Cearcallach, wasn’t much fun – but things improved markedly from there, with a steady anticlockwise plod round the various tops to the main summit, then down the south ridge with its wall before another dose of tropical purgatory at the bottom.

Despite the warm-bordering-on-hot weather and clear skies, I didn’t meet anyone – the Aberarder car park had been packed, and a few walkers could be seen across on the main rim, but all had gone by the time I got there. I did however see what at first I took to be a higher-than-usual dipper, but later realised was a ring ouzel, at 1,000 metres in the plateau-edge burn above Coire Choille-rais.

Creag Meagaidh is a decidedly odd hill. It’s mightily impressive to look at, with corries all over the place – in which regard it’s a Highland version of Cadair Idris, both hills being geological Catherine Wheels, with ridges spiralling off in odd directions. But even up top, despite the height of over 1,100 metres, the going isn’t as good as might be expected: springy moss rather than firm gravels or boulders.

Standing halfway along the Laggan road, it suffers an identity crisis like no other Scottish hill – part western ridge system, part eastern plateau, without really fitting either format. It’s a hill version of Alan Ross’s celebrated witticism about the New Zealand cricketer Bob Cunis: “Funny sort of name, Cunis: neither one thing nor the other…”.

Monday
Overnighted with friends Helen and Bill Cook in Kingussie, then headed for real gravel-and-boulder country: the Cairngorms. A plan to meet another friend on top of Braeriach fell through when he texted to tell of being tied down with family duties in Pitlochry, so I took the chance to fill a few gaps in my central Cairngorms CV.

Having lived in Aberdeen, and having done a fair bit of Strathspey-based walking in subsequent years, these are hills I’ve been in and on a lot. But there are always omissions, and today – again in fine weather, although with a steady south-east breeze that picked up for a spell mid-afternoon – it made sense to chalk off a couple of them.

First came the Goat Track – the walking route out of the back of Coire an t-Sneachda that manages to be both direct and sneaky at the same time. The corrie floor is a great boulder-strewn place with a lovely lochan, and the exit route is only at all steep for 50 metres or so – I was sitting at the plateau-rim cairn in little over an hour from the top car park, with a couple of stops en route. In winter it’s grade II, but in summer it’s just a walk with a couple of metres of damp-but-juggy almost-scrambling at a slabby section halfway up the steep bit.

A local friend told later of a mountain rescue contact having mentioned that he recommended a helmet for the Goat Track, and it does indeed go tight in beneath the verticalities. But despite my increasing keenness for helmets in rough, loose corries, I didn’t feel I was taking any untoward risks by being bare-headed (well, baseball-cap-headed). Perhaps I simply trust Cairngorms granite more than I do Cuillin gabbro and basalt.

Then across to Ben Macdui (what a stroll the path now is – at least as far as Lochan Buidhe – compared with three decades ago), and so down upper Coire Etchachan for lunch on Beinn Mheadhoin, very much the middle hill of its name. This was only my second ascent, the first having been on a youthful full-of-bagging-energy trip with a friend when we walked in from Braemar, camped by moonlight in Glen Derry, then did the odd combination of Derry Cairngorm (via an alarmingly loose gully on its north-eastern top), Beinn Mheadhoin and Bynack More. I contrived to fall in at the Fords of Avon both times.

Both that day and this were dry, and the summit tor was easy enough – but in the wet Beinn Mheadhoin could well be the most technically awkward mainland Munro, given the friction-reliant nature of even easy granite scrambling. In ice it would be a serious undertaking, requiring crampons, axe and nerve – it’s worth recalling that this was the only 1,000-metre summit not reached by Mike Cawthorne during the winter round recounted in his fine book Hell of a Journey. (“Attempting to scale the ice-plating and reach the true summit was out of the question.”)

And so down on an easy diagonal line to the Loch Avon shore path, round the head of the loch via the stepping-stone beaches – all tremendous country, and I had seen no one since the Etchachan outflow – and so up the path on the east side of the Allt Coire Raibeirt, again new to me. This – like the Goat Track – has a reputation for unnerving people, as the steep lower 150 metres is blocky and eroded in places. Easy enough in ascent in summer – although it’s interesting that as far back as 1975, the esteemed Adam Watson advised walkers, in his SMC Cairngorms guidebook, to “take care as the steepest part of the path has eroded badly and is loose”.

What was striking was its directness in good summer conditions. I was starting to feel distinctly puggled, but from the Loch Avon beaches to the summit of Cairn Gorm – around 500 metres of ascent and 2.5km distance – took under an hour of walking time, courtesy of the steep ground low down and the firm, dry, un-Meagaidh-like terrain higher up.

Tuesday
Out with my host Bill for a scoot round the pair of Feshie Munros before the weather broke. In training for the Dent Blanche at the end of July, Bill needed a decent yomp, so we went up by the Allt Ruadh path system, then over Meall Tionail and Meall Buidhe. Sgor Gaoith – how many hills have such a great downward view? – was reached just as conditions started to clear and improve, contrary to what we had been expecting all the way up.

Bill got his proper legstretch on the crossing to Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, as on the Moine Mhor section between Carn Ban Mor and the plateau track he opted for a direct line rather than follow the path, and we only met the track where it crossed the Eidart feeder, the Caochan Dubh. Because I stuck to the path slightly longer before realising what he was up to, I was about a minute behind him right the way across and couldn’t close it despite trying quite hard – and he’s 11 years older than me.

Then came a close-quarters dotterel sighting as we left the Mullach, followed by lunch in one of the gully-top clefts above Coire Garbhlach, from where the scree-and-heather view across to Meall Dubhag always reminds me of Grasmoor.

At the Achlean road-end, as the forecast rain finally arrived, we chatted with a group of knackered-but-happy Duke of Edinburgh’s Award trainees – the second time I’d seen them or their colleagues, there having been a couple of groups on Macdui. At the car park itself was a minibus – presumably theirs – with Ampleforth Abbey written on the side. This prompted a thought: Ampleforth is one of the great Roman Catholic schools, so how come its pupils can receive a DoE award but then be denied the chance of a hassle-free marriage into the Duke’s family, due to the Act of Settlement?

Wednesday
A day of rest, recuperation and general zonking. Even half a decade ago I could have happily managed another outing immediately after three routine-length hill days bookended by two 100-mile drives – but not now.

Not for the first time I’m struck by the extraordinary effort and energy of Stephen Pyke’s 39-day Munro round, which ended just over a year ago. Plenty of Spyke’s individual days were beyond my own scope in standalone terms (Beinn a’Bheithir followed by all the Mamores, for instance), but the stringing together of them, day on day without a break, is what really stands out. And he’s only four years younger than me. Scary and very, very impressive.

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Stewart in effigy at Dunkeld cathedral <em>Picture: Gil Campbell</em>

Stewart in effigy at Dunkeld cathedral Picture: Gil Campbell

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Placing himself firmly in the Hall of Historical Infamy, the dastardly deeds of the irreverent and petulant Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan (1343–1405), earned him the title Wolf of Badenoch.

The third surviving illegitimate son of Robert II of Scotland, born to a mistress who Robert later married – the Wolf had a silver spoon planted firmly in his snout.

With his parentage came the allocation of plenty of Scottish land and titles. The mollycoddled cub had policies in Strathspey and Badenoch to play with, as well as a place to party, with the gothic lair of Lochindorb Castle at his disposal. Like all spoiled brats, his unwillingness to share – and his generally aggressive tendencies – meant he had few folk to party with.

As the unruly cub grew into Scotland’s Wolf, he managed to alienate family, neighbours, religious leaders – and anyone who knew him – with his selfish ways.

Keen to acquire more land and titles, Alexander set about this task by first leasing Urquhart lands, south of Inverness, from his younger half-brother, and thereby obtaining possession of the Barony of Strathavon, bordering his Badenoch lands.

Aided and protected by his doting father, he was appointed Royal Justiciar in Perthshire and given Royal Lieutenancy further north. In effect, the Wolfman held crown authority from Inverness to the Pentland Firth.

Further opportunity presented itself with Euphemia, Countess of Ross, who had Ross, Lewis, Skye, Dingwall and part of Aberdeenshire to her name. This made her a most attractive proposition to the voracious Wolf. A swift marriage to the unsuspecting lady allowed him to add more titles – Earl of Ross and Earl of Buchan – to his collection, with further land to call his own.

Being overly greedy in his land-acquisition, and with an army of Highland clansmen to protect and help him, he managed to stamp on the toes of his neighbouring bishops and dignitaries with complete disregard.

It is suggested that Alexander regularly accompanied his men on missions to rape and pillage within villages in the surrounding countryside, and that he was merciless in his actions.

Alexander fathered no children with his wife, but did have seven with his longstanding mistress Mairead inghean Eachann, with whom he cohabited, further adding insult to injury. In 1389, with some prodding from Alexander’s brother Robert, Earl of Fife, Euphemia complained to the Pope, saying her marriage was a sham and that her husband was doing the dirty with someone else. Three years later the Pope annulled the marriage.

Great news for Euphemia, who could reclaim her lands from her cad of a husband, which must have been a sweet revenge. Fife was no fool, however, and had Euphemia’s son contracted to marry his daughter, so the land would be coming his way eventually.

The Earl of Fife was gaining title and political place, and was soon able to remove some of his brother’s royal titles and bestow them upon his own son. Upon the death of Robert II in 1390, the Earl of Fife remained Guardian of Scotland, which made his brother howl.

Angry, and hell-bent on revenge, Alexander had a fit of rage and went on the rampage. Death and destruction was meted out to the people of Forres, then onwards to Elgin where the Wolf torched the cathedral, the monastery of the Greyfriars, St Giles’ parish church and the Hospital of Maison Dieu.

Amazingly, and presumably because he had family in high places, Alexander was forgiven and absolved of his wrongdoings. He did keep a reasonably low profile thereafter, but in true chav style his sons continued the violence and intimidation. It is recorded that his three sons were imprisoned in Stirling Castle from 1396 to 1402.

According to the local Badenoch community website, legend has it that the Wolf’s death was the result of a game of chess with the Deil himself:

He had been visited at Ruthven Castle by a man, who was tall, and dressed in black. The man wished to play a game of chess with the Wolf. The game went on for several hours until the tall, darkly dressed man moved one of the chess pieces and called “check” and then “checkmate”. The man rose from the table. On calling these words there was a terrible storm of thunder, hail and lightning. The storm continued through the night until silence befell the castle in the morning. In that morning silence, it was then that the Wolf’s men were discovered outside the castle walls, dead and blackened as if they had all been struck by the lightning. The Wolf was found in the banqueting hall, and although his body appeared unmarked, the nails in his boots had all been torn out.

The funeral procession was held two days later, led by the Wolf’s coffin. Terrible storms started over and over again as the coffins were added to the procession. It was only after the Wolf’s coffin was carried to the back of the procession did the storms cease. The storms did not return.

The Wolf of Badenoch died in 1405 and his tomb, topped by a recumbent figure clad in armour, is at Dunkeld Catherdral.

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Flanders Moss nature reserve <em>Picture: SNH</em>

Flanders Moss nature reserve Picture: SNH

By John Knox

If you see a group of worried-looking men and women dressed in cagoules and gumboots walking out on to Flanders Moss west of Stirling this week, they are not the remains of a political party intent on committing mass suicide, they are scientists trying to save Scotland’s peat bogs.

The scientists have been attending a three-day conference at Stirling University called by the UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands. The commission has found that a third of the UK landmass still has peaty soil of one sort or another, but that most of our proper peat bogs and fens have been lost, due to extensive draining for agriculture, forestry, industry, roads and housing.

Does this matter? Yes, because peatlands absorb huge amounts of the gas we are all trying to get rid of, carbon dioxide. The conference was told that the loss of only 5 per cent of the carbon stored in UK peatlands would be equal to our total greenhouse gas emissions for a year. And if you thought that planting trees was the best way of absorbing carbon dioxide, then you should know that Britain’s peatlands can store up to 3 billion tonnes of carbon, 20 times what is stored in all the forests put together.

Scotland is especially blessed with peat bogs. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reckons we have 1.9 million hectares of high-quality peat bog “which could potentially deliver around a million tonnes of carbon sequestration per annum”. And, as a wildlife organisation, the RSPB is also interested in the biodiversity which well-managed bogs can conserve.

Scientists become dewy-eyed when describing places such as Flanders Moss. Here is the Scottish Natural Heritage description of the place: “Squelchy mats of sphagnum moss carpet the reserve with their swirling colours, whilst adders and lizards bask in the sunshine. Listen for the distinctive calls of snipe and stonechat or feel the slight shudder of the peat as it quakes beneath your feet.”

How could farmers and crofters drain such beautiful places and cut into them for fuel just to stoke their peat fires? On Flanders Moss, the cutting began in the 1700s and continued, on an industrial scale, until the 1980s. Now, however, the drainage ditches are being filled in and gradually the bog is returning to its old squelchy self.

In England, the loss of fenland has been dramatic. Fens, incidently, are bogs filled with ground water, as opposed to rain water. A survey in 1637 recorded what we would now call 34,000 square kilometres of fenland. Only 10 sq km remain today. Not before time, SNH and others have recently published a Fen Management Handbook, which basically suggests we stop draining our peatlands and polluting them and covering them with trees, windfarms, roads, houses, industrial estates and golf courses.

The RSPB estimates that to reach the Scottish government’s target of 600,000 hectares of peatland restored by 2015 would cost around £60m. But with the floor price of carbon now at £16 a tonne and due to rise to £30 by 2020, we would get more than half our money back in notional climate change costs – and the price of carbon can only get higher in the longer term as the planet struggles for breath.

Peatlands such as the Flow Country in Caithness, and fens such as the Insh Marches in Strathspey, are the lungs of our environmental system and we should be using them to keep our air and water fresh and our climate stable.

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Christine Jardine

Christine Jardine


We’ve invited those in the election firing-line to send regular bulletins about the personal side of campaigning. Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for Inverness and Nairn.

There are moments in an election campaign when you see with absolute clarity why you are committed to what you are doing, and are reminded why you got involved in the first place.

I had one of those moments this week.

Amid the media-induced frenzy over manifesto policy commitments, the blur of brightly coloured party posters and the constantly ringing mobile phones, I found myself standing on a doorstep in Inverness in the rain waiting for another door to be opened.

Who would it be this time? A parent worried about the effects the current local authority cuts would have on their children’s education, a carer worried about whether the support they need to look after their elderly parents would continue to be available, or a businessman worried about whether they could survive until we reach the light at the end of this particular economic dark tunnel?

As I waited I felt, not for the first time, the huge weight of responsibility that goes with the determination to make a difference.

Come 5 May, I am hoping that voters all over Inverness, Nairn and Strathspey will put a cross beside my name. Choose me and the Liberal Democrats to provide the solution to the challenges that face Scotland.

And what can we offer in return? We have our manifesto and commitment to raise funds to invest in a long-term strategy to provide jobs, restore excellence to our education system and protect our local service and keep decision-making close to the communities dependent on them.

But we have more, much more than that.

I introduced myself to the elderly lady who opened the door. We discussed my background, my politics and what Liberal Democrats are committed to doing for Scotland’s future. We talked about pensions and the council tax. But she had heard a lifetime of promises from politicians and said so.

As I was about to go, I said there was one promise that I could make her. That I would work hard, I would listen and that I would always put what was best for Inverness, Nairn and Strathspey first.

She smiled and shook my hand. That was the only promise she had wanted.

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Ben Hope: signal strength good. <em>Picture: Harry Willis</em>

Ben Hope: signal strength good. Picture: Harry Willis

A trip to Sutherland last week provided contrasting examples of how mobile-phone technology is a complex muddle: both impressively rewarding and completely frustrating.

In my role as The Caledonian Mercury’s Outdoors correspondent, I drove up the A9 on Wednesday evening to stay with friends in Strathspey as a staging post before meeting mad-keen Munrobagger Stephen Pyke – aka Spyke – on Ben Hope. Spyke was about to demolish the previous fastest time for climbing all the Scottish 3000-foot hills, and The Caledonian Mercury just had to be there.

Ben Hope is the most northerly Munro, and my friend Bill Cook and I needed the best part of three hours to get there on Thursday morning. I had already filed a one-paragraph outline, the idea being that as soon as Spyke reached the summit I would text through the precise timings, these would be subbed into the existing paragraph, and we would be first with the story.

This, of course, assumed that a phone signal could be obtained from the summit – and as Bill and I drove through Altnaharra, the last community before Ben Hope, I noticed an old-style red phonebox. This might yet be needed – Vodafone was patchy at best in the glens.

But although we started uphill with zero signal, and although things stayed that way until near the summit, suddenly there was life. The line of sight to the north coast – with its villages and phonemasts – was adequate. Spyke and his entourage duly arrived, I texted through the copy, and Bill took a camera-phone snap of him touching the trig point. Hence the piece was live before we started downhill. All very modern, and pretty impressive.

I had been on the same hill ten years earlier to greet Charlie Campbell, the previous record-holder. I didn’t own a mobile in those days, so wasn’t able to try the same trick. But although the mobile network did exist, I’m pretty sure Ben Hope was a no-signal blackspot. Things have moved on a lot.

So that was all splendid. Next day, however, showed how this kind of stuff still has the capacity to infuriate.

After another night in Kingussie, I set off south in mid-afternoon – and somewhere around Drumochter twigged that I’d forgotten to chase details of another story. For several months, The Caledonian Mercury has been following the case of a freelance journalist alleged to have falsely called out a mountain rescue team in the Lake District. The journalist concerned was due in court that very day, and in the Munro-record excitement I had forgotten to make a note of the court phone number in Workington.

Damn.

I pulled into the vast car park at Bruar and texted my partner in Stirling to get her to find the number online. “Am in town. Need to wait till home”, she replied.

Surely it was obtainable from directory inquiries, however. What number to ring? I tried 192, but it didn’t seem to work. The only other number I could remember (oh, the power of advertising) was 118118.

The operative had poor English and was both very polite and completely useless. The call consisted of my repeatedly spelling “West Allerdale and Keswick Magistrates’ Court” – Keswick seemed a particular mystery – and I was already resigned to my fate when, after an interlude, he came back on and asked “Sorry sir, should I look under council?” Then the line went dead. There had been three quid on the mobile, and the call couldn’t have lasted much more than a minute. I’d effectively plugged a device into the phone and pressed a button labelled “Give the 118 people all your money.”

I wouldn’t have minded had I actually learnt the court number, but I was still none the wiser – and now had an empty mobile. Aaarrggh.

The Blair Atholl village store had a top-up machine, so I asked for a fiver to be put on. The old lady was the sweetest, friendliest shop assistant one could ever hope for – a throwback to a bygone age – but after several minutes of fiddling and fumbling it was clear she had no real idea how to operate anything more modern than a set of scales.

Her equally sweet husband joined in, and seemed to have a bit more idea, but in due course a printout emerged which the old lady read to me: “System busy.” She might as well have said: “Computer says no.” Meanwhile, the clerk of the court in Cumbria was several minutes closer to locking up for the weekend.

On to Pitlochry, feeling a bit fraught, where a young bloke in the petrol station topped up the phone as if it was the simplest thing in the world, while chatting to his mate. Life seemed easy again.

Phone back on, a text came in from my partner: she had the number. It was just before 5pm, and there was perhaps just enough time – but the court was in answerphone mode, so the whole thing would have to wait until Monday.

Ultimately, the episode was my own stupid fault – had I remembered to note down the number beforehand, none of the rest would have happened. But that one mistake plunged me into a chaotic world where technology was either in the hands of distant corporates or beyond the grasp of locals with their slower, more rural ways of doing things.

One lives and learns – but suddenly the easy, everything-works joy of Ben Hope seemed a long way away.

By Val Hamilton

After more than a month of whiteness, it was a shock to wake midweek to large expanses of grass. Not exactly greenery, more a grubby mustard, but certainly evidence of a rapid thaw.

For weeks now, the shining, snowy hills have been beckoning. Normally nondescript areas such as the Hills of Cromdale and the low lumps west of Grantown on Spey have caught the eye, begging to be skied over. Skier, climber and runner Andy Hyslop (who once held the record for the fastest time along the Cuillin ridge) was among those who did not resist the call.

My own philosophy, based on solid opportunist principles, has always been to ski the lowest available snow, and there has been more than enough at all levels in Strathspey. Every year, even in the mildest winters, there are days when you can ski-tour in the Scottish
mountains – but it is rare to have this huge choice of gentler, Norwegian-style terrain at your feet. The chance to tour from the
door, along sheltered forest tracks and across usually uninviting moorland, had an immediate appeal.

As a result, for the past month, most trips have been local, rarely climbing above 500 metres, although growing longer as the powder consolidated and the trees stopped their unnerving shedding of overloaded branches. It has been an extraordinary, memorable experience. And yet, as the conditions persisted, there was a nagging sense that perhaps the boundaries should have been pushed a little further, with more challenging trips, despite the avalanche warnings and dodgy roads.

However, as soon as tarmac reappeared, the decision was confirmed as the right one. The higher hills are still covered, the depth of snow at Cairngorm remains impressive, as shown by Alan MacKay’s pictures on
Winterhighland, and it looks as though there will be weeks of mountain-touring available.

As I write, the snow is falling again. The view is back to white, and if I can ski in the forest again this weekend, that is where I will
be.

By Val Hamilton

After more than a month of whiteness, it was a shock to wake midweek to large expanses of grass. Not exactly greenery, more a grubby mustard, but certainly evidence of a rapid thaw.

For weeks now, the shining, snowy hills have been beckoning. Normally nondescript areas such as the Hills of Cromdale and the low lumps west of Grantown on Spey have caught the eye, begging to be skied over. Skier, climber and runner Andy Hyslop (who once held the record for the fastest time along the Cuillin ridge) was among those who did not resist the call.

My own philosophy, based on solid opportunist principles, has always been to ski the lowest available snow, and there has been more than enough at all levels in Strathspey. Every year, even in the mildest winters, there are days when you can ski-tour in the Scottish
mountains – but it is rare to have this huge choice of gentler, Norwegian-style terrain at your feet. The chance to tour from the
door, along sheltered forest tracks and across usually uninviting moorland, had an immediate appeal.

As a result, for the past month, most trips have been local, rarely climbing above 500 metres, although growing longer as the powder consolidated and the trees stopped their unnerving shedding of overloaded branches. It has been an extraordinary, memorable experience. And yet, as the conditions persisted, there was a nagging sense that perhaps the boundaries should have been pushed a little further, with more challenging trips, despite the avalanche warnings and dodgy roads.

However, as soon as tarmac reappeared, the decision was confirmed as the right one. The higher hills are still covered, the depth of snow at Cairngorm remains impressive, as shown by Alan MacKay’s pictures on
Winterhighland, and it looks as though there will be weeks of mountain-touring available.

As I write, the snow is falling again. The view is back to white, and if I can ski in the forest again this weekend, that is where I will
be.